They say that travelling is always an enriching and meditative experience, no matter your destination, but my last trip to Iran proved again that certain places and cultures ( and they’re mostly the less visited by the common tourist) really have the power to change and enrich you enormously, taking you to a completely different universe of lifestyle and culture.
I spent 10 days in the beautiful land of Iran, which has been on my top list of destinations to visit, for a while. My experience there exceeded completely my expectations and I came back overwhelmed by the marvels of the country and enriched with an immense amount of knowledge of history, culture, art, touching encounters with locals and impressive sights.
Day 1 we started off in Tehran, arriving at 6am and after only 3 hours of sleep we were already in our car on the way to the National Museum. I would recommend booking a driver for the whole stay, as taxis are not easy to fetch on the street and might be too hectic and time consuming.
The National Museum is definitely a place to visit as it treasures history of Iran through centuries in antiquities in potteries, textiles, jewellery and figures dating 7000 years back, Upper Palaeolithic tools from the Yafteh Cave that dates 35000 years back or pieces from the Persepolis. It is really an indescribable and breathtaking experience to stand in front of these archeological artifacts and gaze at ancient history of mankind. If you havent slept much as in my case and you’re a bit delirious, you can really feel it.
After that we stopped to grab a coffee and pastry at the iconic Naderi Café, which was build in 1928 and is renowned for being the preferred spot of artists, intellectuals, writers and philosophers back in those days.
Quickly after that we were already on the queue of the Treasury Of National Jewels. It was a long wait, but it was worth every second. The collection is of the most expensive jewels in the world, but their value also reflects many eras of history of Iran and also represent the cultural heritage of the country. The crowns, jewellery, sceptres, swords, boxes and decanters adorned with thousands of diamonds, pearls and precious stones were like nothing I have seen before. Absolutely incredible works of art that gave me goosebumps and brought tears to my eyes with their grandeur. Also happened to find the biggest diamond in the world there. No cameras allowed.
We had lunch at the Hatun restaurant nearby, where typical Iranian food is served in a very traditional manner and surroundings, and then we continued our first day with visiting the residence of Dr. Hesabi and, which is now a museum and is located in the higher northern part of Tehran just below the mountain, taking a drive through the posh neighbourhoods of Fereshteh, Zafaranyeh and Elahyeh.
We finished the day with a visit to Daraband, the city’s highest point, where you can enjoy a walk through a market with sweets and goodies and have dinner at some of the restaurants beside the river.
Day 2 at 6 am after a quick coffee and some sangak bread with cheese and honey for breakfast we were already packed in the car, starting off for our journey through the country.
The final destination for the day was Isfahan, but before that we had planned stops at a few other places worth seeing, including the cities of Kashan and the mountain village of Abyaneh.
First stop was at the Shah Abdol Azim shrine, which is right in the outskirts of Tehran. The 9th century mosque is not a place for tourists and I had to be very discreet with my presence and careful in order not to disturb and bother the locals. The inner part of the shrine where photos couldnt be taken has an incredible mirror work all over the ceilings and walls and it was very difficult for me to sustain my expressions of amazement under my veil.
By 8am we were already on the road to Kashan, passing by gorgeous views of Mount Damavand, which is the highest volcano in Asia and highest peak in the Middle East. Such as mount Kailash in Tibet, Damavand also has a spiritual and mythological meaning among the Persians.
After a quick coffee stop near Qom and passing by the immense Namak Lake we could already feel getting deeper in the country at a drier and significantly hotter climate. For as much as I love green mountains and forests are my temples, driving through the rocky, sandy and vast surroundings was in a way very meditative experience and carried a special beauty.
After an approximate 3 hour drive we arrived in Kashan at lunchtime. Getting off the car I found out it was about 35C and having to wear a long sleeve up-to-the-knee jacket and a scarf at such temperatures was new for me. You do get used to it, but I recommend thin, cotton or silk, cooling fabrics in general.
First stop in Kashan was a visit to the Finn Garden, which consists of the Palace, the traditional baths and hammams, some pools, streams and of course, gardens. You can enjoy a close look to beautiful frescoes and visit the historical bath where Amir Kabir, a Prime Minister of Iran during the Qajar period was murdered in 1852. He was a very influential man during his period and you can measure that by the long queues with locals waiting to enter the bath.
Next we drove to the old part of the city and paid a visit to the marvelous historical houses – Boroujerdis, Abbasi and Taba Tabai.
The Boroujerdis House dates back to the Safavid Era and was built in 1875 by architect Ustad Ali Maryam Kashani in traditional Persian architecture for the bride of the wealthy merchant Borujerdi. The incredible architecture was achieved after 18 years of work of 150 craftsmen and painters and is considered a masterpiece of traditional Persian residential architecture.
Close by walking distance we also visited the Abbasi and Tabatabaei Historical houses, also as impressive and stunning as The Boroujerdi house.
Before leaving for our next destination we had lunch at a gorgeous location I totally recommend – The Manouchehri Historical House. It also dates back to the Safavid era, but parts of it were rebuilt about 200 years ago after an earthquake. The house is now a boutique hotel and has an amazing restaurant with traditional Kashani cuisine, a relaxing courtyard for tea or coffee and a really nice gift shop and art gallery.
At about 4pm we continued our road trip and headed to Abyane, which I was very excited to visit. In about two hours we arrived in the small traditional village, hidden at the foot of Mount Karkas (3899m).
With 300 citizens, Abyaneh is a 2000 years old gem that has preserved not only its red mud brick houses, but also its traditions. Some of the locals still speak Middle Persian, and all of them wear their traditional costumes in everyday life. The candy-pink flower white scarf, for example is one of the main attributes to the womenswear. Definitely a must visit in Iran.
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After another 3 hour drive we arrived in Isfahan at 10pm and checked in The Abbasi Hotel.
The astounding complex is the oldest hotel in the world, built over 300 years ago in the Safavid era for the last Safavid King – Sultan Husayn.
With its unique paintings, detailed wall and ceiling decorations and beautiful courtyard filled with waterways and flowers, the Abbasi Hotel reflects the Persian art and culture in every corner.
The hotel has seven very good restaurants, a tea house, a coffee shop, which gives you a plenty of good choices for dinner after a long day around town.
Day 3. Isfahan really won my heart. The city reflects the Persian artistic achievements everywhere with its architecture, stunning romantic gardens, museums, palaces and picturesque plazas.
It emerged somewhere during the ancient Elamite Civilization around 2700 BC and has a long and interesting history. It was the capital of Persia twice, first in 1050 and then again in the 16th century under the Safavid Dynasty and is wrapped in history and art all around. They call it a sister city of Florence, Saint Petersburg and Kuala Lumpur and I could see the resemblance – a city museum!
We started our day with a breakfast in the gorgeous surroundings of our hotel and planned our itinerary. We got on the first cab at the street, where an adorable probably over 70 years old gentleman with moustache agreed to be our driver for the following three days.
He was extremely kind and apparently had a lot of knowledge, having been a teacher himself, and served us as great guide, telling us everything we needed to know about the landmarks we were visiting. An incredible gesture I won’t forget and really touched me was when suddenly he pulled over, got off the car and got back in with couple of flowers he had picked for us.
We first stopped at the 2000 years old Sassanian era Shahrestan Bridge.
Then we got off at the famous Si-o-se Pol Bridge built in 1599. With its two rows of 33 arcs, the bridge is renowned as one of the most important bridges in Iran.
We then visited the charming Vank Cathedral or The Holy Bethleem Church and its museum.
After a lunch in a small, modern cuisine restaurant close by (Hermes) we continued our Isfahan sightseeing with a visit to the Ali Qoli Aca Bathhouse Museum.
And then The famous Menar Jonban, also called The Swinging Minaret, which was built 700 years ago. The two towers with Safavi art written all over them were added about 400 years ago and were built with an interesting architectural design where when one of the tower is shaken, the other one and the whole building shakes as well. They do it every hour, so we were lucky to arrive exactly 5 minutes before they were shaken.
There I tried the local so called hakeshir juice with some odd seeds that proved to be delish and has special health benefits.
Our last visit for the day was the Fire Temple of Isfahan. We drove about 15 minutes out of the city to find the archaeological complex lying on a rocky hill. The sight of what is believed to be the remains of a 6th century BC Zoroastrian temple was pretty impressive.
Day 4 we first visited the Hasht Behesht Palace, located in a garden right next to The Abbasi Hotel and few minutes walk from Naqsh-e Jahan.
The rest of the day we completely dedicated to the spectacular Naqsh-e Jahan Square which was constructed somewhere in the 15th century and is considered to be the biggest square in the world and an important historical site.
Connecting together a few important sites such as the Shah Mosque, The Ali Qapu Palace, The Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque and the unique Bazaar of Isfahan, the Naqsh-e Jahan square is a really magical place, that carries a special air and energy.
The delicate designs and incredible work of the Sheikh Mosque are a breathtaking sight, and I assure you, no photo can capture the splendor and glory of it. Standing in the middle of it, below the majestic dome, surrounded by extraordinary beauty, is a feeling I wont forget. Unfortunately a “tragic” event happened that same morning when I dropped my camera and broke the lenses and was left with only my broken iphone to rely on for the rest of the trip. Very lame, as the best was yet to come. But one with “two left hands” has to be prepared for such things 🙂
The Shah Mosque or also called Imam Mosque, is one of the oldest religious structures and architectural gems of Iran and is about 2000 years old. Every part of it was built in a different era and its decorations dating back from the 6th century AD like Persian calligraphy and paintings by local masters of arts are truly magnificent.
Next stop was at the Ali Qapu Palace which is located at the Western side of the square. Unfortunately the main part of it was closed at that time and we could only go up to the terrace, which was also splendid and gave us a complete view of Nash-e Jahan.
The rest of the evening we spent wandering among the hundreds shops at the bazaar that surround the plaza, where you can find unique Persian detailed handicrafts, antiques, elaborate jewelry, carpets, engraved works of art and pottery from local merchants. Some of them have been selling the same product for over 700 years. A true paradise!
On the next day In the morning we checked out from our hotel and agreed with our driver to take us to Yazd.
On our way leaving the city we made a stop and paid a visit to the Chehel Sotoun Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, built by Shah Abbas II for entertainment and parties.
In its interior you can spend hours gazing the spectacular frescoes and paintings depicting history events by different artists.
Then we continued on our three hour drive through the desert towards our next destination.
Yazd is a city located in the desert and treasures more than 3000 years of history. It’s most famous for being the center of Zoroastrian Culture, the Persian ancient religious philosophy which dates back to the 2nd Millennium BC. The Zoroastrians’ god was the sun, and they believed in “Thinking good, talking good, doing good”. I had heard about it before, and was interested in this religion, so I found it extremely enriching and curious to learn more of it in the roots of its beginning and development.
We stayed at another great traditional hotel – Dad Hotel with very helpful staff, a splendid courtyard and an amazing rooftop restaurant.
We only had a day in Yazd before we head back to Tehran, so we squeezed as much as we could with the help of Mitra, the assistant manager of our hotel, who was very kind to drive us around and show us the most important sites in the city which include the Zoroastrian Fire Temple – Ateshkade, with a very old and interesting history and the eternal flame that is burning for more than 3000 years, making the temple one of the most important ones for the followers of the religion, which still exist and has an estimate of 150000 followers worldwide, mostly in India and Iran.
We continued our visit with a walk in the old town of Yazd with its typical architecture of thick and tall walls and passages which play a role in protecting the citizens from the dusty desert winds and the burning sun. An interesting thing you can see in Yazd is the ancient air conditioner – the so-called badgir, which all wealthy families had in their houses. It provides natural cooling through its wind tower, transporting the air towards the house and into a pool of water at the bottom.
The Friday mosque, an exquisite 14th century shrine lays magnificently in the middle of the old town. Next we stopped in the Alexanders prison, built by Alexander The Great to detain Iranian elite. The Qajar era Khan-e Lari house, as well as the Coin Museum, The Water Museum, The Mehr House, The Elami House, The Tower Of Clock and the local jewelry bazaar, famous for its gold.
Due to our limited time and busy itinerary on the following day we had to leave Yazd and head back to explore Tehran. We took a 1 hour flight, which saved us more than 6 hours of driving in the heat and gained us more time for the capital.
Arriving in Tehran in the afternoon, we dropped our bags and paid a visit to a very nice local couple for a typical afternoon tea in their magnificent aristocratic persian house.
After some walks and shopping at some of Tehran’s main streets we changed and went to dine at the gorgeous rooftop restaurant Divan, offering modern persian cuisine, where you could have a glimpse of the young and modern Tehran society.
After a few incredible meals, 3 desserts and a visit to their art gallery with really nice pieces of arts and jewelry our long day finished.
On our last day in Tehran we first started of to see the Saad Abad Palace. The complex is compound by 18 castles (museums) and lays on 110 hectares of forest. You definitely need a day to visit all of it, so we picked a few only and saw the Shah Reza Palace – The Green Palace, The Mohammad Reza Palace – Mellat Palace, and The daughter of Rezas – Shams Palace.
With a few hours left before heading back to Europe we paid a quick visit to the Clocks Museum, a stop at the Tarjish bazaar, had a nice traditional dinner, and later on that night we started off to the airport for our 4:30am flight.
All good things come to an end and so did our trip. I left Iran with sadness, as I really bonded with the country and wanted to see so much more of it. There is still Shiraz, where we intended, but didn’t manage to go, there’s the North, the Caspian Sea, The Fars Province, The Persopolis.
But I also left happy, because I found a new favorite country that became very special for me and I will definitely be returning there for more beauty and adventures.